"From our farmers, to our chefs, to your plate ... It's Elemental." This is the self-proclaimed essence of Chattanooga's newest farm to table restaurant called, naturally, Elemental. Located in the environmentally conscious 2 North Shore development across from Whole Foods Market, the restaurant takes this mantra to heart, with chefs truly investing the large amounts of time, thought, money, and energy required to source as much as possible locally in order to provide their diners with not only the best tasting products but also the most sustainable.
Chef Charlie Loomis changes his menu frequently according to what's available and has a planning party every Monday with his staff to come up with new dishes inspired by what they'll be getting that week, be it a baby carrot or a piece of lamb. That's the sign of a restaurant that is truly sourcing locally, a menu that changes, and
it's that kind of labor of love that's required to produce true sustenance, the kind that nourishes the community.
"The way we see it there should be a connection between people and their food. It's an emotional thing," Loomis describes. "If you're not getting that, you're missin' out. I know the people that I buy my food from and I know their families ... I've been to the farms ... I've seen it growing ... I think that brings it full circle."
Chef Loomis and the rest of the culinary staff at Elemental really do bring it full circle by creating fresh, reimagined Southern food like boiled peanut hummus with hemp seed crackers and pickled vegetables with ingredients sourced from more than 35 local farms and artisans. From their buttery steak (which was, it should be noted, cooked perfectly) alongside thick wedges of sweet potatoes flecked with sea salt and caramelized Brussels sprouts to their grits served heaping with some of the most beautiful wood-fired oyster mushrooms I'd ever seen to a stuffed rabbit loin served with a spring vegetable ratatouille, their menu's refined simplicity that is at once familiar and new allows the ingredients to speak for themselves.
The ambiance echoes the ethos with a Ford tractor bought from a local farmer on the back of Signal Mountain serving as the dining room centerpiece, surrounded by handcrafted wooden tables, made by local firefighter and friend of Chef Loomis' John Lehman.
With excellent mixology happening behind the bar, food isn't the only thing on the menu that's innovative. From local Chattanooga whiskey to Pure Soda Works flavors-Hibiscus Lemon and Strawberry Jalapeño-to a cocktail that features house-made ginger syrup with a splash of red wine, no matter what your poison is you'll find it here. In a culinary climate that's too frequently dominated by people using words like "sustainable," "local" and "organic" to sell their product without any integrity, Elemental is a refreshing example of a place that really believes in it, really practices it. And they do so all while creating delicious food that does the products they work so hard to source justice.
Ultimately, it isn't just the chef's skill and imagination alone that makes food taste good, that's only part of the equation. The person who grew it is an integral part of determining the quality of what ends up on the plate too. This is something that all great chefs understand, that Elemental understands, that their vendors understand and that anyone understands after eating their food. It was that idea and a salad, the first salad I had at Elemental, which was nothing but Lee & Gordon's greens dressed simply with pickled radishes, a few curls of salty cheese, and a light vinaigrette that had me soon after driving down highway GA-1 south on a perfect spring day.
It was one of those days that's nothing but blue and green and gold, and I was on my way to Chickamauga to visit Lee & Gordons Greens for myself, to experience firsthand where some of the food Elemental is serving comes from. Sought after by the best chefs in the city, Lee & Gordons, a small family built and run hydroponic greenhouse, is where some of Chattanooga's finest lettuce is grown. When greens are as good and fresh as these, they can be served simply and somehow the salad tastes like more than the sum of its parts. Their greens tasted like that spring day looked, and therein lies the beauty of wonderful ingredients-they taste like a place, a season, like the green of the greens.
When I pulled up I was greeted by Gib Jones and his two gregarious French bulldogs. He gave me a tour of the greenhouse which shares the property with their family home and an amazing shingled fort their father built for them as children. This is, indeed, a family run operation in the best of ways. Outside the greenhouse grow blueberry bushes, and inside is row after row of greens tended lovingly from sprout to picking. From little tendrils of Asian microgreens, fragrant rows of basil and peppery watercress, to fat heads of Bibb lettuce and spindly mizuna, one look at their greenhouse and you'll have a profound new respect and desire for the humble salad.
Jones gave me a thorough tour of the greenhouse explaining the irrigation, the cooling, the pH system and all the care that goes into producing the quality they grow. Walking up and down those rows of greens I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store, and I can only imagine how inspiring it must be when these greens show up fresh at the restaurant. After the tour, he sent me off with a bag overflowing with greens, and I gleefully went home to do what Elemental did with them, as little as possible to make them shine.
You can find the greens for yourself at the Chattanooga Market or you can just stop in at Elemental and let Chef Loomis work his magic on them for you. Be sure to embrace their communal small plates and try as many creations as possible. Just ask your server and they'll tell you all about where the food is from and how it's made. If you somehow manage to try everything, the great thing about Elemental's ever-evolving seasonal menu is that there will always be something fresh and new to try, inspired by the best local, seasonal products they can find.